“I didn’t send him out there to paint,” Dusty Baker would say. “It was no secret.”
One of the things about strategic maneuvers in baseball is that they’re usually evident ahead of time. There aren’t many equivalents to, say, a corner blitz. If a manager goes to the bullpen, the other team sees the new reliever first, and can get ready to hit him. If a defense shifts for a hitter, the hitter can observe the shifted positioning, and think about how he wants to adjust. If a manager inserts a pinch-runner, the other team can figure that runner might be running. There’s little sense in a pinch-runner otherwise. Much about baseball can be surprising. The same cannot be said for much of baseball strategy.
Billy Hamilton made his major-league debut Tuesday night, in a scoreless game between the Reds and the Cardinals. He made it not as a starter, but as a runner, having recently come up as a September promotion. Hamilton ran for Ryan Ludwick with none out in the bottom of the seventh, and it didn’t matter that the opposition had Yadier Molina behind the plate. I mean, it did — of course it mattered — but Molina’s presence wasn’t going to stop Hamilton from trying to do what he was going to try to do. Everybody understood why Hamilton was in the game. He wasn’t out there to paint.
“He was just another baserunner,” Maness said. “We know he’s fast, but you treat him no different. Get the ball to the plate quick and make the throw. That’s baseball.”
In a sense, Seth Maness is right. Only so much about a baserunner is in a pitcher’s control. All you can do is pay a little attention and get the ball to the catcher as fast as you can. You can do little things to try to knock the runner off his game, like go with a slide-step, or throw over, or vary your times between pitches. But, ultimately, if a runner’s going to go, he’s going to go, and you just have to see how it works out. A pitcher can’t allow a baserunner to occupy too much of his attention, whether that runner be real slow or real fast.
But Billy Hamilton isn’t just another baserunner. If you were to draft a list of players you might consider to be “just another baserunner,” you’d find Billy Hamilton at the very bottom. Billy Hamilton is a baseball player and a top prospect known for his baserunning. That’s the thing that sets him apart. Understand how difficult it is for someone to be set apart on account of his baserunning skill. It’s the least important component of the game, but Hamilton is so good he’s made a name for himself. In preparing for this particular series, Cardinals pitchers studied Hamilton video. They knew he’d be a factor, and they knew he was a potential game-changer. The Cardinals themselves identified Hamilton as more than just another baserunner, and they weren’t incorrect.
And Maness’ behavior ran contrary to his own words. With Hamilton on first, Todd Frazier at the plate, and Yadier Molina behind it, Maness immediately attempted three consecutive pick-offs. Maness knew he’d have to keep Hamilton close. Maness knew Hamilton wasn’t out there to paint.
There was a buzz in the stadium when Hamilton took over for Ludwick at first. Reds fans have been waiting for more than a year to see what Hamilton might be able to do on the basepaths in the bigs. The king of steals in the minor leagues finally had a chance to make a difference in an important divisional game, and every last person knew that Hamilton was going to showcase his one exceptional strength.
Ordinarily, nothing annoys a home crowd quicker than visitor pick-off attempts. The booing begins with the first, growing louder with successive tries and bluffs. As Maness threw over to first to return Hamilton to the bag, the crowd cheered. I have genuinely never heard that before in my life.
“[The pick-offs] really got me going,” Hamilton said. “I felt like when he did that, I had a chance on him. I felt like he was nervous. And if he’s that nervous, I got a chance on him.”
Hamilton had never before appeared in the bigs, and Dusty Baker instructed him to steal second base against Yadier Molina in a September game with playoff implications. Immediately, Seth Maness tried to pick him off three times in a row, before throwing a single pitch to home plate. The idea, for Maness, was to try to keep Hamilton close, to let him know he was being watched. What actually happened was that Maness made Hamilton more comfortable. Right away, Hamilton got himself involved in the game. Right away, Hamilton got to see Maness’ move. Maness is a righty, so Hamilton wasn’t having to deal with a lefty’s pick-off move, and Maness gave Hamilton multiple looks. You don’t achieve Hamilton’s stolen-base numbers if you don’t know how to read a pitcher, and Maness opened himself up. Hamilton got a sense for when to break, which was all he needed. Although, in truth, maybe he didn’t even need that.
The Reds’ odds of winning jumped by 5.5 percentage points. Big, for a stolen base; modest, for an on-field event. The game was still scoreless, and Hamilton was still 180 feet away from changing that. But this was a blend of circumstance and anticipation. The steal was important, for what it was, and the steal was important for what it stood for. Billy Hamilton is the stolen-base king of the minor leagues. He might one day be considered the stolen-base king of the bigs. In his major-league debut, it took him one pitch to steal his first base, against the best catcher of his generation.
Dan McLaughlin: “Yadi guns down to second base — safe.”
Al Hrabosky: “Not one of Yadi’s better throws.”
Dan McLaughlin: “They have a better throw, he’s got him.”
Al Hrabosky: “I think you’re right. You’re right.”
The truth is that Hamilton would’ve been out with a better throw. Probably, I mean, and the Cardinals’ broadcast wasn’t wrong in that regard. Molina’s throw to second sailed wide. What the broadcasters didn’t consider, though, is Hamilton’s effect on the throw in the first place. Molina’s throw wasn’t up to his usual standard, but perhaps that’s because he was rushed, and perhaps that’s because it was Billy Hamilton on the basepaths. And let’s think about what it means to steal on Yadier Molina.
Molina is the active leader in caught-stealing rate. And it isn’t just that Molina throws a lot of runners out — it’s that, because of Molina, a lot of runners simply don’t try. Since Molina became a regular in 2005, the Cardinals have allowed 450 stolen bases. The next-lowest total is 677, belonging to the Reds. Over the past decade, no catcher in baseball has seen a lower rate of attempted steals per nine innings. Over the past decade, no catcher in baseball has seen a lower rate of successful steals per nine innings. It’s understood that you don’t run on Yadier Molina. He just shuts the running game down. His caught-stealing rate might even be artificially low because most of the time, only the best probably try to give it a go. People regard Yadier Molina like they used to regard Ivan Rodriguez, so Hamilton had every reason to be nervous. This went beyond Hamilton just making his debut. This was about Hamilton challenging the best in the business, when the best in the business knew full well what was about to happen.
Molina looked down to second base and smiled as he put his mask back on. Molina’s going to get more chances at this. That much, he can count on.
“That’s my job,” Hamilton said.
Truth is, most stolen-base attempts are successful. Even against Molina, and especially with a righty on the mound. Hamilton scored the game’s only run on Frazier’s subsequent double, and he would’ve been able to score from first. He might’ve been able to score from home. Hamilton didn’t do anything amazing, and he didn’t win the game on his own, as the Reds needed Ludwick’s hit, and Frazier’s hit, and the pitchers’ pitching. Hamilton moved himself from first to second base. People figured he would. His own manager assumed it.
But Billy Hamilton made a difference. This was a top hitting prospect immediately going deep off Clayton Kershaw. This was a top pitching prospect immediately striking out Miguel Cabrera swinging. Billy Hamilton’s a top prospect with a .651 Triple-A OPS. There’s one thing he does that everybody knows, and given his first big-league opportunity, Hamilton wasted zero time in doing his thing against the best baseball has to offer. After three straight pick-off attempts, Hamilton stole second base on his first live pitch, a pitch received by Yadier Molina. Already, we know Billy Hamilton couldn’t be more obvious. And that’s not going to stop Billy Hamilton.
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